Northern forest winters have lost cold, snowy conditions that are important for ecosystems and human communities

TitleNorthern forest winters have lost cold, snowy conditions that are important for ecosystems and human communities
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2019
AuthorsContosta, AR, Casson, NJ, Garlick, S, Nelson, SJ, Ayres, MP, Burakowski, EA, Campbell, JL, Creed, I, Eimers, C, Evans, C, Fernandez, I, Fuss, C, Huntington, T, Patel, K, Sanders-DeMott, R, Son, K, Templer, PH, Thornbrugh, C
JournalEcological Applications
Date Published2019///
ISBN Number1939-5582
KeywordsClimate Change, indicator, northern forest, snow, Temperature, winter

Winter is an understudied but key period for the socioecological systems of northeastern North American forests. A growing awareness of the importance of the winter season to forest ecosystems and surrounding communities has inspired several decades of research, both across the northern forest and at other mid- and high-latitude ecosystems around the globe. Despite these efforts, we lack a synthetic understanding of how winter climate change may impact hydrological and biogeochemical processes and the social and economic activities they support. Here, we take advantage of 100 years of meteorological observations across the northern forest region of the northeastern United States and eastern Canada to develop a suite of indicators that enable a cross-cutting understanding of (1) how winter temperatures and snow cover have been changing and (2) how these shifts may impact both ecosystems and surrounding human communities. We show that cold and snow covered conditions have generally decreased over the past 100 years. These trends suggest positive outcomes for tree health as related to reduced fine root mortality and nutrient loss associated with winter frost but negative outcomes as related to the northward advancement and proliferation of forest insect pests. In addition to effects on vegetation, reductions in cold temperatures and snow cover are likely to have negative impacts on the ecology of the northern forest through impacts on water, soils, and wildlife. The overall loss of coldness and snow cover may also have negative consequences for logging and forest products, vector-borne diseases, and human health, recreation, and tourism, and cultural practices, which together represent important social and economic dimensions for the northern forest region. These findings advance our understanding of how our changing winters may transform the socioecological system of a region that has been defined by the contrasting rhythm of the seasons. Our research also identifies a trajectory of change that informs our expectations for the future as the climate continues to warm.